a book review by GERALD LOMBARDI
The Power of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them
2020, 336 pp, Blink Publishing/Bonnier
In The Power of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them, Simon Roberts aims to resuscitate the human body from the sepulchre of Western thought, where Descartes and his successors presumably buried it, and to correct popular misconceptions about how we generate knowledge. In the author's words:
"Our intelligence does not just arise from our brains... nor can it be programmed as a set of rules or propositions that enables us to think in particular ways or perform particular actions. Instead, our understanding of the world arises from our bodies’ interactions with and perceptions of the world – and it is through these interactions that our bodies acquire knowledge." (p. 6)
This proposition will be taken for granted by some readers of this review, and by anyone who follows its intellectual touchpoints: embodied cognition, situated learning,...
Few professions appear more at odds, at least on the surface, than ethnography and data science. The first deals in qualitative “truths,” gleaned by human researchers, based on careful, deep observation of only a small number of human subjects, typically. The latter deals in quantitative “truths,” mined through computer-executed algorithms, based on vast swaths of anonymous data points. To the ethnographer, “truth” involves an understanding of how and why things are truly the way they are. To the data scientist, “truth” is more about designing algorithms that make guesses that are empirically correct a good portion of the time. Data science driven products, like those that Uptake builds, are most powerful and functional when they leverage the core strengths of both data science and ethnographic insights: what we call Human-Centered Data Science. I will argue that data science, including the collection and manipulation of data, is a practice that is in many ways as human-centered and subjective...
Founder, CEO, Acesio Inc.
Head of Behavioral and Organizational Research, Acesio Inc.
The focus of this paper is to investigate deep learning algorithm development in an early stage start-up in which edges of knowledge formation and organizational formation were unsettled and contested. We use a debate by anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Claude Levi-Strauss to examine these contested computational forms of knowledge through a contemporary lens. We set out to explore these epistemological edges as they shift over time and as they have real practical implications in how expertise and people are valued as useful or non-useful, integrated or rejected by the practice of deep learning algorithm R&D. We discuss the nuances of epistemic silences and acknowledgments of domain knowledge and universalizing machine learning knowledge in an organization that was rapidly attempting to develop algorithms for diagnostic insights. We conclude with reflections on how an AI-Inflected Ethnography perspective...
JUSTIN B. RICHLAND
Associate Professor of Anthropology, UC Irvine; Faculty Fellow, American Bar Foundation; Associate Justice, The Hopi Appellate Court
EPIC2018 Keynote Address...
by TOM HOY, Stripe Partners
Sensemaking: The Power of Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm
2017, 240 pp, Hachette Books
Christian Madsbjerg has done a huge amount to elevate the profile and impact of ethnography in corporate settings. As co-founder of ReD Associates, Madsbjerg makes a consistent and compelling case for ethnographers to set their sights beyond user experience and design to impact decisions at the pinnacle of global organisations.
His new book Sensemaking advances his mission further, advocating humanities-based thinking to a much wider business audience. The central analysis feels more even resonant today than when the book was released last year: the power of big data has created a false idol, lulling us into the belief that the algorithm has the capacity to replace critical thinking.
What unfolds is a story which is compelling and bold in critique, but strangely conservative and ambiguous in the solutions it prescribes.
Silicon Valley and the Renaissance Man [sic]
PechaKucha Presentation—A label can be accurate and inadequate at the same time. A fish is a fish, but it's also a sea-dwelling, scale-covered, egg-laying, underwater-breathing creature. Many of us believe in the power of words to change the way we think about something. But are we always aware of how the labels we use influence our perspective? We're on a mission to better understand how, when, and why people use labels at work. We come across labels in project briefs, some emerge during fieldwork, and then there are labels we use to define what we do. We use them to communicate and refocus, but they also restrict our thinking. Through participation, observation and conversation, we've reflected on how labels can help us and hold us back.
Daniela Cuaron is Empathy's research and strategy lead. She applies anthropological research with purpose to create meaningful strategies. Dani's work sees her striving to understand and address people's unmet needs. firstname.lastname@example.org
CHRISTOPHER A. GOLIAS
American Eagle Outfitters
This paper examines the cultural counter-flow between ethnography and remote usability testing, specifically what such tools might offer ethnographic practice. I explore how remote usability testing can both extend and delimit ethnographers’ sight lines. Because remote testing has a narrow aperture, long sight line, poor context and quick turnaround, I invoke the metaphor of a spyglass in the hands of the ethnographer to understand this increasingly available digital research method. Remote usability testing can quickly access insights and novel footings, while simultaneously creating myopic, distorted or biased understandings. Theoretically, the history of usability studies is compared to that of archaeology as it transitioned from a cultural product focus to a context focus. Practically, several workflows are presented that use the strengths of ethnography and remote usability testing to enhance one another. Finally, ethnography is discussed as a craft-like competence, rather...
by SIMON ROBERTS, Stripe Partners
The news on BBC Radio this morning: The Syrian crisis enters its seventh year with 400,000 dead and little hope that this complex catastrophe will be untangled any time soon. The scale of suffering is huge, but Syria accounts for just a fraction of an even more staggering number – the UNHCR estimates there are 65 million refugees or internally displaced people worldwide.
Like many others I watch the steady stream of grisly news from Syria – it comes to us in facts, figures, infographics, human stories and historical comparisons. I've been shocked. But I am also inoculated. Whatever the quality of the reporting, however harrowing the scenes, our attention moves on. It is difficult to truly grasp the scale of what we have seen, hard to understand what it must be like to be a refugee. In an age when a seemingly limitless amount of information is at our fingertips, when we can know more than ever about events around the world, we still fail to understand.
Here’s the challenge of contemporary...
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PechaKucha Presentation—“But what do anthropologists do? What kind of special knowledge do you have access to?” This question was posed during one of the salons at EPIC2014 and cuts to the heart of the value of non-academic anthropologists. We contend that there is not one answer, but a series of possibilities, each a pathway – to knowledge with its own consequences and import. To explore these, we take inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon and Margery Wolf’s methodological critique A Thrice-Told Tale. Both of these explore the benefits and limits of perspective by recounting a single story through different lenses. Similarly, we will take a single empirical field observation from fieldwork done on a Caribbean cruise ship. From this starting point, we will frame the same story through three different lenses commonly used in our work: as a user insight, a strategic implication, and as inspiration for innovation. We will emphasize the...
Anthropological theory deepens and extends the impact of ethnography, adding significant value to the companies, organizations and communities we work with. Because professionals who use and execute ethnography in business come to the job from varying backgrounds, many ethnographers are seeking to extend their training in theory and research. And when we do engage more deeply with theory, many of us find that the epistemologies that drive research in business contexts are often in tension with anthropological understandings of research, knowledge, data, and evidence. As anthropologists working in a corporate setting, we sometimes struggle to reconcile these tensions and maintain an anthropological perspective in the rush of everyday productivity and work objectives. In this tutorial, participants collectively explored what we saw as foundational theoretical perspectives that, historically, have shaped ethnographic method.
The EPIC community has been wrestling with ways to integrate quantitative and qualitative methods in light of the increasing role that digital data plays in business practices. Some focus on methodological issues (digital data as method), while others point to the consumer value in data products (data as thing in the world). This paper argues that “digital data as method” and “digital data as thing in the world” are becoming increasingly intertwined. We are not merely witnessing ethnographers’ haulting embrace of digital data, but a wider process of the domestication of data, in which we, alongside the people we study, are participants. The domestication of data involves everyday situations in which ordinary people develop their own sense-making methods—methods remarkably similar to ethnographic knowledge production. In this way, the domestication process tightens the connection between data as thing in the world and data as method. I argue that seeing the interconnection gives us the...
by SIMON ROBERTS, Stripe Partners
"The lesson I took away from that was, while we like to speak with data around here, so many times in my career I've ended up making decisions with my gut, and I should have followed my gut," Otellini said. "My gut told me to say yes."
So said the ex-CEO of Intel, ruing his decision to pass on the opportunity to put Intel processors in the first iPhone. It was a decision that would cost Intel the opportunity to power the wildly successful iOS range. His gut, it turns out, was right—but the data didn’t support his instinct.
The story most businesses tell to themselves is that they make decisions based on the best available information. It isn’t an exaggeration to suggest that the entire infrastructure of business strategy is configured around the idea, and needs, of the “rational decision maker.” In the technocratic world the quantitative emphasis on what can be counted (empirical data) obscures what does not count (and cannot be counted), namely subjective emotions, intuition and experience.
University of California Davis
This paper seeks to examine some of the underlying tensions that shape how and why ethnographers in industry often find their efforts devalued or not realized by stakeholders – i.e. “moments of disjuncture.” I argue that in many large corporations there is a separation between the stories anthropologists tell about themselves and those which are told about them, which mutually constitute an “informed fiction.” This fiction acts as a catalyst within a broader cycle of knowledge exchange (the industrial research complex) that demands a fast paced churning out of “newness” in insights before they grow old. These two processes often come to a head, creating a “seen it before” phenomena which risks devaluing timely and important work. To understand this I examine a case study of smart and automated technologies and offer potential solutions....
University of California Santa Cruz
In this paper, I will use an ethnographic research project to develop a set of foundational personas to work through the process of formulating insights that challenged the core epistemological assumptions of our stakeholders. Drawing on a rich body of discourse within postcolonial theory, I will highlight the concept of critical hermeneutics that emphasizes thinking about the conditions under which knowledge is produced over the “facticity” of the research artifacts, shifting the focus from “how objective is the information” to “what assumptions are driving research.” Put simply, critical hermeneutics can be seen as a method that uses reflexivity to explain how meaning is not absolute or empirical, but rather emerges from active interpretation that is informed by context. With this theoretical framework in mind, I will describe the methods used to include our stakeholders in the process of engaging with research data and ultimately derive the epistemological cores of the...
Stripe Partners TOM HOY
This paper explores two different forms of knowledge. We compare embodied understanding with propositional or abstract knowledge. Ethnographic research, with its commitment to understanding through immersion and engagement in social fields produces dexterous, intuitive and practical cultural knowledge, which is highly suited towards culturally attuned activity. We argue that ethnography can often be reduced to propositional knowledge as a result of the lack of team participation in research and how we communicate insight. Ideas of professional expertise sit behind the division of labour that characterises client-researcher relationships. Accompanying that division of labour is a need for the communication of ethnographic research to bridge the gap between client and external worlds – the world we as researchers explore and that our clients needs to act in. By engaging our clients in shared, immersive experiences we can create the conditions for them to develop ‘know how’ about...